Who is Local?

5/2020 | Paul George

Tracing the origins and changing meanings of the word in the lexicon of humanitarian aid through my experience



My first paid job was doing research on the post-conflict recovery strategies of communities in India’s remote northeast, which has a history of insurgencies and ethnic violence. When I went to those communities, I did so with a translator, looked nothing like them, and understood nothing of their culture beyond what I learned in my literature review.

My lived experience as a 22-year-old man from southern India with a Master’s degree was closer to someone living in a middle-income European country than someone who lived a subsistence lifestyle deep in the forests of Assam, looking after his slash-and-burn crops and young family. Despite all of this, and the fact that our homes were separated by 3500 kilometers, the fact that we were both Indian citizens qualified me as a “local” researcher/actor.


Where did we get the idea of “local” from?

The current delineation between “local” and “international” in the humanitarian space is defined in terms of sovereign entities created out of extremely flawed colonial actions. Perhaps the origin for the definition of a “local” vs “non-local” actor can be linked to the idea of ‘mono-lingual/cultural’ European nation states. Many current nation states were former colonies that were formed through the irrational and cruel clubbing together or division of distinct social systems under one political structure. These artificial governance structures reproduced many of the skewed power relations between peoples that is foundational to colonialism. The colonial tendencies of these states, and power relations with former colonies, shape and directs humanitarian aid to this date.

Working for an INGO with communities in Assam after ethnic riots, I was essentially a version of a Brown Sahib, perceived clearly as an outsider (geographic and ethnic) and holding enormous power over humanitarian assistance – way beyond what I felt I should have. In that role, the same center-periphery dynamics that characterize relationships between the Indian Union and culturally distinct Northeastern communities were replicated.

The use of the word “local” in humanitarian aid can be traced to a certain ‘othering’ produced by the description of communities being assisted by Western actors. With the expansion of the aid industry across the world, the word “local” has acquired a multitude of meanings, so much so that it can mean nothing and everything without context. It can denote a well-paid employee of an INGO living in a capital city (such as myself) or a mother of two living in a flood-prone village who earns a ‘stipend’ for disseminating hygiene messages in her community. It can refer to an organization that is a source of great innovation and sustainable solutions or those who are mere channels of access to communities for INGOs. It can be a loosely organized movement which attempts to break the chain of caste oppression in India or a front for elites who do the oppressing.

The use of the term “local” without an understanding of where the entity is located in the spectrum of power relations is fraught with the risk of glossing over these important distinctions.The assumptions produced by this othering need to be scrutinized. Especially in a context where the increased focus on localization increases the incentives for deliberate mischaracterizations, it calls for more self-awareness on our part when we use the word.


Does the localization agenda replicate the same problems we see with the false idea of local?

When talking about localization, the word “local” hides within itself multiple often contradictory layers of meaning determined by the social, economic, and political position occupied by the entity in relation to those receiving assistance. Oblivious to a “non-local”, these layers often have a direct impact on the experience for those receiving assistance. The degrees of separation between the local actor and communities can lead to a mix of contrasting outcomes, including a highlighting of biases, inequitable distributions, rapid and flexible responses, emergence of hyper-local solutions, and long-term strategies that do not fit into the narrow lens of a short-term humanitarian intervention.

By and large, the way the localization agenda is implemented still stands on the foundations of a broken humanitarian system. However, as local as an entity may be, their limited decision-making power vis-a-vis donors and INGOs (and the pressure to replicate the same program designs, organizational structures, intervention strategies, and selection criteria) transform the experience of assistance towards a near mirror image of a “non-local” response. The Brahmaputra River basin floods annually, bringing a flood of international money for aid along with it. Every year, many local organizations (based in faraway Delhi or Calcutta) end up spearheading the humanitarian responses for INGOs, growing in size and expanding their geographical scope, staff strength and programming portfolio. In doing, so many of these local NGOs merely ended up replicating the structures and related problems of their INGO donors.


Skin in the game

In 2018, when responding to catastrophic flooding in my home state, I truly experienced what it is to be local. My maternal grandparents’ home, where I spent my summer holidays as a child, was badly trashed in the floods and I took leave to help in the cleanup operation. When your grandmother counts as one of the IDPs is when you realize that, for the true local, the personal and professional are too close to be untangled. Whenever I spoke to affected persons, they would ask me if my home was flooded, I would tell them about my grandmother and for a brief moment we would share a commonly felt loss. And it did make a difference. Knowledge of the language, local pop culture, colloquial phrases, and power dynamics helped me to judge situations much more easily. With relatively few professionals from my state working in the humanitarian sector before the floods, I found myself being a useful bridge in many situations, explaining the context as well as the true nature of the beast that INGOs are.

Six years after working in the humanitarian sector in my own country, I had finally become as close to being ‘local’ as I define it – I had skin in the game.

In this role, I was exposed to many of the daily dilemmas and unique pressures faced by local responders, which are often invisible to expatriates bouncing between contexts/countries on short assignments. Visiting my paternal grandfather’s ancestral village to monitor water filtration systems we had installed, I was extremely reluctant to reveal my family name, which would immediately identify me as connected to the village. I wondered: ‘What if they asked me for more assistance? What if the filtration system failed and they held me responsible personally? Will someone in my organization think we are working here because of my link to it?’. I was also conscious of my socio-economic position as the descendent of an upper caste landholding family providing assistance to sharecroppers and marginal landholders (who were worse affected), the traditional power structures were merely being reproduced. Given all of this, working in my home state made me view my past experiences in a different light, made me more empathetic towards national staff, and grounded in my expatriate experiences.

The View from Yemen

My experience as an expatriate in Yemen has certainly been starkly different from my previous experiences. Despite being the poorest Arab nation, the country had a relatively small amount of interventions from aid agencies and international development before 2014. The civil war funneled Yemeni professionals from the collapsed private sector into INGOs, which are amongst the largest employers and service providers in the country today. Many of these professionals, in addition to being better placed to understand their context and travel freely, are better qualified and skilled than their expat managers (myself included). Often, the capacity building that is required is in terms of ‘NGOizing’: understanding proposals, logframes, grant cycles, report writing, donor compliance, etc. They also may need to orient their skills to typical humanitarian response activities, as engineers who built roads now oversee pit latrine construction (which you can get wrong). It seems the primary added value of expats in this case is just a better grasp of the ways of working in the aid sector. 

Since the word “local” is indeed so vague, drawing easy conclusions on issues like humanitarian principles and access in relation to local actors is difficult. The conflict dynamics in Yemen place severe pressures on organizations, challenging the practice of humanitarian principles. These pressures affect INGOs and local organizations alike – both have relative strengths when negotiating these pressures. Local organizations can leverage formal and informal social networks to find solutions, while international organizations can lean on their larger size and funding pools to resist pressures. In both cases, it is local/national employees who leverage their social capital (often at risk to themselves) to navigate sensitive issues for their organizations. Time will tell which actors were able to negotiate these pressures and provide assistance.


The Road Ahead

Covid-19 has highlighted gaps in the localization narrative across the world. With international staff restricted in capital cities due to lockdown measures, local partners lead the way while INGOs scramble to ‘monitor’ remotely – often exposing gaps in institutional capacity left unaddressed for years. The eventual shrinking of funding streams that will occur will put further pressure on this – the lower operational costs of local organizations and the evident limitations of INGOs could force a shift to increased localization in terms of funds allocated to local partners and the number of local staff within INGOs. Indeed, INGO headquarters in the developed world have themselves turned into “local” actors responding to the emergency needs that have gripped the societies that traditionally fund humanitarian aid – maybe that will transform ways of thinking and working.

If localization does indeed get a jump start in the new normal created by Covid 19, then we need to acknowledge its value of increasing the diversity of voices at the decision-making table. However, increasing the role of local organizations without understanding their position in the social and political systems they operate in and its impact on the experience of communities is fraught with risks. The touchstone of any reform in humanitarian aid has to be the experience of the most vulnerable individuals in accessing their rightful humanitarian assistance, not the nationality of those providing it.

Photographs and graphics from top to bottom: Photo 1: With my colleague Hasina during a cash distribution for returnees in Chirang District, Assam, India. Photo Credit: Paul George. Photo 2: Explaining filter use and maintenance to community members living in a forest reserve in Palakkad district, Kerala, India Photo Credit: Paul George. Photo 3: With my colleague Mobeersha en route to my grandfather’s ancestral village in Alappuzha District, Kerala, India to check out how water filters were faring. Photo Credit: Paul George. Photo 4: Rebuilding school latrines in Kokrajhar district, Assam. Photo Credit: Paul George.

About this article

This blog was written as part of the “From where I stand: Unpacking ‘local’ in aid” series. Each weekCDA will create a space to help bring  these critical and fresh, though often neglected, voices – from local practitioners to those working alongside them (including those who work on the policy and programming agenda) – to the forefront. 

Our hope is to expand our collective thinking and understanding about what “localization” actually looks like in practice, no matter how messy it may be. In doing so perhaps we can begin to answer the question: What if the evidence-base for local leadership, aid policy, and INGO practice was instead based on the diverse experiences and ideas of those leading humanitarian, aid, and peacebuilding efforts in their contexts?

For more blogs in this series check-out:

And many more to come soon! If you are interested in contributing to the series please contact Sarah Cechvala at [email protected]. We would love to hear from you and include your perspective.  

About the author

Paul George is a humanitarian professional from Kerala, India. He has worked with different international actors to respond to natural disasters and conflict in different regions of India with specific experience in the fields of food security and livelihood recovery, WaSH programming and Resilience building programs. He has a Masters in Humanitarian Assistance from Tufts University. He is starting a new role with International Rescue Committee in Myanmar. Paul enjoys spending time with his cats, playing football and watching Netflix with his wife when he is not writing grant proposals.